Australia Day: Indigenous people are told to ‘get over it’. It’s impossible

By Amy McQuire, Originally published in The Guardian Australia Monday 27 January 2014

Every year, Australia tries to wash away its hidden history with displays of overt nationalism. On 26 January, Australians plant their union jacks in parks and beaches across the country, or on the faces of small children who are taught nothing about what the symbol means to those people this nation believed it conquered. For the majority of them, there has only been one name for the date: Australia day.

But for the First Peoples, there have been several. Survival day, invasion day, sovereignty day – each word loaded with the pain of 200 years of dispossession that has left Aboriginal people impoverished but, against the odds, remarkably strong.

My preferred name for 26 January, however, was one of its earliest – the day of mourning. On this day, First Nations peoples mourn the loss of land, of their children, of their wages, of their remains. They mourn the loss of control over their own future. Australians may want us to “get over it”, to stop being so “sensitive”. But then, why do we still set aside a day of remembrance on ANZAC day to commemorate those who risked their lives at war? And why don’t we acknowledge the brave Aboriginal fighters who sacrificed everything in the frontier wars?

A couple of years ago, I visited a site of extreme significance to my nation – the Darumbal people, whose homeland takes in Rockhampton in Central Queensland. About a 30 minute drive from the town, there is a mountain which was for decades known as Mt Wheeler; coincidentally the same name as the man, sir Frederick Wheeler, who in the 19th century chased a mob of Darumbal people up to the top and herded them off like sheep.

As I gazed up at that sheer cliff face, I imagined the pleading faces of a people who would never get justice for those crimes, although the evidence of their spilled blood is passed down by stories and even in official documents at the time. Today, that site is unmarked. Scattered rubbish left by campers litter its base. The Darumbal people renamed this sacred initiation site – Gawula. Australians are blind to the crimes that occurred there and yet, it’s one massacre site amongst thousands across Australia. Do you know the ground you walk on? Would we treat the massacre site of any other people this way? Would we forget so easily?

This month, veteran journalist John Pilger released his new film Utopia in Australia. What he uncovers is an ignored truth. Despite the magnificent wealth of this country, its First Peoples have inherited a legacy of disadvantage that has compounded since the very first days of invasion. It’s compounded by government neglect and apathy, by watered down promises replacing land rights with “reconciliation” and the failure to recognise the ability of Aboriginal people to control their own lives, to grant them true self-determination.

Australia is locking up Aboriginal people at horrific rates, and yet still cutting funding to Aboriginal legal aid services. It lets its media off for demonising Aboriginal people, and even gives them a Logie for it. It shamefully allows the 10-year extension of one of the most racist policies in Australia’s history – the Northern Territory intervention – and claims its for “their” own good. It will not have any evidence of the frontier wars in the Australian War Memorial, but is content to represent them as gargoyles alongside wildlife on the walls of the national monument.

This shameful history is laid bare in Utopia, but the film also showcases the strength and resilience of Aboriginal people. One of my favourite quotes from Utopia is made by Anmatyerr elder Rosalie Kunoth Monks:

What amazes me is there is not that hatred, because that’s beneath our dignity to hate people. We have not got that… but us old people have to start thinking about righting the wrong, the awful wrong that continues to happen to us an ours.

That’s what we are fighting for.

2 thoughts on “Australia Day: Indigenous people are told to ‘get over it’. It’s impossible

  1. I too was inspired by her saying that. I read about this massacre in The Blood on the Wattle. I don’t know if it helps at all, but I am trying to find out about all the massacres in my local area. Just the other day my husband and I went for a bush walk and our trail took us onto to an important Bundjalung meeting ground where a massacre was, (I recognised it from an old photograph from coverage of the story by a local Indigenous writer). We were simultaneously delighted by it being a wedding ground, and the presence of middens and felt a sense of celebration for the life/s that had been lived and the amazing people and country that must have once been in place, but also profound sadness in acknowledgement of the truth of our invasion both to people and country. We both spoke of all this and honoured it, and gave our best energy to the place, in our own quiet, low key way. As far as I know, on an energetic level, this is a good thing that I/we can do, and it feels right to do so.

  2. I also think ‘Mourning Day’ is the right one. It invites people in to soothe suffering. And I think it has implications for the invading nation too; people need to mourn the myths of the valiant pioneers. Accepting the truth of what was done (and continues to be done because we deny the truth on so many levels) requires many people to accept their forebears as murderers and thieves, and this is a mourning of identity that we must go through too. I think that’s an important part of non-Indigenous Australia’s reconciliation efforts. By the way, maybe you might like to read a post of mine.

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